JOLIET, Ill -- Brad Keselowski apparently feels his future is so bright in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that he has to wear shades, regardless of what anybody else wants him to do.
The 12 drivers who qualified for this year's Chase gathered in Millennium Park in downtown Chicago on Wednesday for a publicity photo in advance of Sunday's opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway. It was a sparkling sunny day, but the photographer wanted the drivers to pose without wearing sunglasses.
All the drivers complied, except for Keselowski. Despite pleas from NASCAR officials, team reps and even his fellow racers, Keselowski steadfastly refused to remove his shades. When the photo was finally taken, there was Keselowski in the middle of the line of drivers, eyes carefully covered. Taking a cue from singer Frank Sinatra, who considered Chicago to be his kind of town, Keselowski is determined to do things his way.
It is hard to argue with the results so far. Keselowski won Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland for his fourth victory of the season and his 10th top-10 run in the past 11 races. Keselowski now leads the standings by three points over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and by eight points over defending champ Tony Stewart.
"There's no better place to start than in the lead. Why not go from there?" Keselowski said. "Our team did a phenomenal job of executing and got my car running really, really strong.
"It feels like round one of a heavyweight title fight, but it's a 10-round fight. We might have won the round, but we haven't by any means knocked them out. ... The Chase isn't about one particular weekend, it's about 10. And there's still a long way to go."
Here are five things we learned at Chicago ...
After running near the front for much of the day, Gordon said his throttle stuck as he entered the first turn on lap 189 of the 267-lap race and he slammed hard into the wall. The wreck dropped Gordon to a 35th-place finish, a devastating blow in the 10-race Chase. He is now 47 points behind Keselowski and 21 points out of 11th place.
"In this deal, you can't afford to have issues like that," Gordon said. "It's very disappointing."
Earnhardt then authored a quietly solid race, which is what he has done all season. Mostly using the high-line around the 1.5-mile oval, Earnhardt steadily worked his way through the field and finished eighth. In years past, Earnhardt's lap times usually fell off as races progressed -- it was, by far, his biggest flaw -- but this season he has consistently passed cars as the laps have wound down, which is what he did Sunday.
Earnhardt does not possess the raw speed of some of the top competitors, so for him to win the championship, he likely will need to string together nine more top-five and top-10 runs while hoping that others make a mistake at some point in the Chase and suffer finishes of 20th or worse. Earnhardt should be fast next weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway, where he finished fourth in July.
"We're still in the fight," said Earnhardt, who trails Keselowski by 17 points. "So we'll go on to the next one still with a shot."
Well, Busch didn't make the Chase, losing the final position to Jeff Gordon last week. But while the championship is no longer a possibility, there are still races that can be won, and Busch must have realized that at some point during the week leading up to Chicago. Busch put in some serious practice time on Friday, running 48 laps during the first session (the sixth most of any driver) and then turning another 40 laps during the second session. By the time practice was over, Busch had posted the second-fastest lap of the day at 181.507 mph.
The work paid off, as Busch finished fourth, his first top-five in seven races. Busch will not win the championship this season, but if he is willing to keep his head in the game, do not be surprised if he wins another race.
Kenseth's crew is still working hard for him. During Friday's second practice session, Kenseth ran one lap and said the car was extremely loose. He immediately returned to the garage and the team worked on the car for more than a half-hour. Kenseth went back out on the track, ran two more laps and said the car was better but still too loose. So it was back to the garage for some more adjustments. Finally, with the practice session winding down, Kenseth managed to sneak in four more laps. He hit 180.905 mph during one of them, which was the eighth-fastest speed of the session.
It appeared that performance was going to carry over into Sunday's race, as Kenseth was running in the top 10 most of the afternoon. But he began fading following a restart with a little more than 100 laps to go, and eventually his right front shock fell completely out of the car. Kenseth dropped all the way back to 24th before a caution allowed his team to make the needed repairs. It wasn't enough to salvage the day, however, as he finished 18th. Kenseth has only three top-10 finishes and one top-five over the past nine races. After leading the point standings for six consecutive weeks midway through the season, Kenseth has now dropped to 11th.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Chicago for his fifth victory of the year, and extended his lead over Elliott Sadler in the series standings to nine points. Stenhouse is vying for his second consecutive Nationwide Series championship. The last two drivers to win back-to-back Nationwide titles, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr., are both in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Stenhouse might soon be a Chase contender as well. He is replacing Kenseth in the No. 17 Sprint Cup car next year, and team owner Jack Roush has already declared that Stenhouse will go down as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. While that statement is definitely a bit over the top -- let him win at least one Cup race first -- there appears to be little doubt that Stenhouse will quickly become one of the sport's better drivers.
"Ricky Stenhouse is going to be a force in this sport," said fellow Roush-Fenway driver Carl Edwards. "It's the beginning of a new era for our sport to have Ricky in the car."